A pretty essential part of any medium is growth. If we keep doing the same thing over and over again, we get bored. There are lots of ways to counter this, like fight scenes that get the blood pumping, unexpected twists and turns, and the like. For games, it usually comes by way of extra interactivity.
New tools can be thrown at you, or a level can receive a brand new design unlike anything else. A pretty common feature that games use a lot, however, is skill trees. They can give you the potential to build your character how you want, and let you plan ahead. A lot of the time, they can be pretty boring to look at, so these games add a little bit more flair to the experience.
7 Path Of Exile
Path of Exile is one of those rare games that seems like it never should've taken off as well as it did, or have been as well-supported as it is. Yet here it is, going strong with plentiful updates to keep it going. As a free-to-play ARPG it's one of the few of its kind, and it has an undeniable quality.
Path of Exile can also be a bit dense. People tend to look at grand strategy games and think they're impenetrable. Just look at the skill tree for Path of Exile, though — that thing is…incomprehensible. In terms of pure design it may not be the prettiest, but the grandiose scale has a beauty of its own. One that seems dizzying to have even been created.
6 Final Fantasy 13
The Final Fantasy series has never been afraid to experiment, from its core combat system and level design, down to the fundamentals of progression. FF7 introduced a major change with how Materia determined character roles, and every game since has tried some variation on the idea.
FF13 has an interesting rendition, falling somewhere between the systems of FF10 and FF12, and following the path of each character's crystals to unlock new abilities and stat increases. You can ultimately unlock everything, but the Crystarium itself is a beauty to behold. It's a fully 3D plane of interconnected crystals that grow with each character.
5 Civilization 6
To say 'skill tree' isn't exactly the correct phrase for use here, or for strategy games in general. In the case of Civilization 6, it's actually technology and civic trees. They're not an unusual feature of Civilization games by any means, and in fact are pretty central to a game.
Interestingly, they probably showcase the intent of skill trees best. You can choose to develop piece by piece, or plan far in advance. Techs and civics have dependencies on prior ones to mirror that of reality, and are linked by threads to show it. It's simple and readable, but the literal forward growth of it feels like following the tale of a tapestry depicting history itself.
4 Shadow Of The Tomb Raider
The modern Tomb Raider trilogy tried plenty of new things to set it apart from the original, and despite incredible sales it seems Square Enix wasn't quite satisfied with it. Though they may be a far cry from the earlier style, they are still beautiful games that attempted a blend of action and survival elements.
All the games in the trilogy feature skill trees, and in truth they all function pretty much identically. Shadow of the Tomb Raider goes the extra step to give it some visual flair. The three focuses of the tree are identified by different colors; red, green and blue. Rather than downward lines, they're styled more like tiles of a mosaic, slotted between each other and unlocking adjacent tiles as you progress. It's a simple change, but one that livens it up just a bit more.
3 Deus Ex: Human Revolution
The Deus Ex franchise has definitely had a wobbly few years of late, being another of Square Enix's ill-fated studios. Human Revolution was a raving success, though Mankind Divided didn't hit those same highs. All the same, both are incredible games, and Human Revolution revitalized an ailing genre of games.
A major aspect of Human Revolution was the blending of UI elements with the world. It was Jensen seeing it through his augmentations, and the skill trees were no different. Rather than just squares to claim down a line, each augment was actually highlighted on his body, and had a logical reason for why it functioned. Seeing through walls had his eyes upgraded, punching through walls his hands, and so on. It felt less like random upgrades, and more like a logical growth.
2 Total War Three Kingdoms
The Total War series may have started as strategy games based heavily on human history, blending elements of turn-based and real-time tactics, but it has evolved so much since. Dealing with the legends of Troy and other grand fantasies, they still hold great joy for strategy enthusiasts. They also have no fear of adapting their core systems to different games.
Three Kingdoms is a great example. Technology trees are an important part of many games, and the Reforms Tree is Three Kingdoms' rendition of this. However, unlike others, it's literally a tree. Every time the season changes to Spring you get the opportunity to advance your reforms along the actual branches of the tree, crafting your own unique history and form of government. It's humourous to have made the idea so literal, but also shows the true intent of how a skill tree is meant to function.
Skyrim was something of a trendsetter, one of those games that come along every once in a while, reshaping how everyone thinks games should be made. They often bring great ideas that many people rarely seem to pick up on correctly. Skyrim is teeming with creativity in the design of its world, yet so few manage to capture that same feeling.
Just about every AAA game has skills trees nowadays, and they're mostly pretty generic. Skyrim, however, comes with a presentation like no other. To access the skill tree the camera drags your gaze upwards torward the sky, and you plot your growth along the stars of the constellations. In function, it's quite basic. However, the way it feels is such an important aspect that it's something incredibly difficult to recreate.
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